Pistons Extend Winning Streak to 7 With 87-85 Victory Over the HeatDetroit trailed for most of the game, but eventually wore down Miami for an 87-85 win in the first half of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader. Rip Hamilton led the Pistons with 24 points. He scored nine of Detroit's 18 first quarter points as Miami led by seven going into the second quarter. Detroit started out the game by shooting 3-11 from the field while committing four turnovers. Flip Murray came off the bench to provide a boost with eight points in the second quarter and Detroit trimmed the Miami lead to 45-42 at halftime. The Heat clearly did not have a lot left in the tank, even against a Pistons team that was hardly hitting on all cylinders (so to speak). TNT's Charles Barkley predicted at halftime that Detroit would win the game and went so far as to say that Detroit will finish the season with the best record in the East (more on that topic later).
Hamilton's layup with 8:26 left in the third quarter tied the score for the first time, 49-49. The Heat rebuilt their lead to 55-49, but the Pistons closed the period with a 17-9 run to take a 66-64 lead into the fourth quarter. Hamilton scored six of the 17 points.
Murray's jumper with 9:41 remaining put Detroit up 71-65 and the Heat seemed to be fading fast--but Miami scored seven straight points in less than two minutes to regain the lead, 72-71. Then it was Detroit's turn to make a run, as Chauncey Billups hit two three pointers and Rasheed Wallace made one in a 13-4 burst that put Detroit up 84-76. Miami rallied again but could get no closer than 86-85. Wade's attempt to make a game winning jumper barely grazed iron with less than two seconds left and Hamilton made a free throw to close out the scoring.
The game was a rematch of the last two Eastern Conference Finals but did not feel that way; Detroit's heart and soul, Ben Wallace, now plays for the Chicago Bulls and the Heat are now just 6-9, including a 4-7 record without Shaquille O'Neal, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Miami went 11-12 last year when O'Neal was not in the lineup, so it is becoming increasingly clear that, despite Dwyane Wade's obvious gifts, the Heat are basically a .500 team--or worse--when O'Neal is not on the court. Wade finished with 21 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 46 minutes but he shot only 5-23 from the field. He never found a rhythm, either, shooting 1-3 in the first quarter, 1-5 in the second quarter, 1-8 in the third quarter and 2-7 in the fourth quarter. Also, Barkley and Kenny Smith pointed out a lapse in judgement by Wade on the game's final play. Wade held on to the ball and ran the clock down despite the fact that Miami was trailing by one; the correct play would be to take the shot more quickly, leaving enough time for an offensive rebound or a foul--even if Detroit made two free throws, Miami would still have had a chance to send the game into overtime with a three pointer. TNT's Ernie Johnson spoke up in Wade's defense, noting that Wade was probably exhausted from trying to carry the team for the entire game (I don't recall anyone saying that about Kobe Bryant last year when he carried a team without a legitimate post presence into the playoffs...).
During the game, Doug Collins, TNT's outstanding analyst, agreed with Barkley that Detroit will finish with the best record in the East. Detroit Coach Flip Saunders thinks that way, too, and has publicly said that the Pistons will be a better playoff team this year than last year--bold words for someone who guided Detroit to the best record in the league in 2005-06 only to barely beat playoff neophyte Cleveland in a seven game series. The East is so weak this year that anything could happen but there is no way that Detroit is a better team without Ben Wallace, which is the undertone to Saunders' remark. He and Wallace feuded and Saunders wants to prove that the team is better off without the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. A simple glance at Detroit's year by year playoff record shows that this team is in decline: Champions in '04, Finalists in '05, Eastern Conference Finalists in '06. It will not be easy for the Pistons to reverse that trend this year without Wallace and, if they do, it will be more of a reflection on the weakness of the East than any alleged improvement that they have made.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM